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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)



The Open Door of Heaven.--The Glory of God.--The Throne.--The Four Beasts.--The Four
and Twenty Elders.--The Sealed Book.--Its Significance.--The Weeping Prophet.--
The Lamb.--The Doxologies.--The Atonement.

      With the fourth chapter there is a remarkable change in the nature of Revelation. Two parts, the record of the things John saw and the things that were (are) have ended; the third part, the declaration of the things that shall be hereafter, begins with these words:

      After this I looked, and behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was, as it were, of a trumpet talking to me; which said, come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. See also chap. 1:19.

      The prophetic portion, which embraces seventeen chapters, is now introduced by imagery of the most striking character. The scene has entirely changed. No longer does John behold Patmos and the sea, or the vision of the Son of Man moving among the golden candlesticks, [42] with the seven stars in his hands, but in the spirit he is permitted to look through the open door of heaven and to behold Him who sits upon the throne in glory and surrounded by the tenantry of the skies. While the fourth chapter begins the prophetic portion it is not itself prophetic, but introductory. It is a picture of the divine glory, and it serves to introduce the book of seven seals in the hands of Him who sits upon the throne. This sealed book is the book of the future, sealed from mortal eyes, but which shall be opened and revealed by the Lamb. God and his throne must be seen in order to see this book.

      It is well to understand fully the object of this glimpse within the portals of the heavenly world. John was led up thither in the spirit, not to signify that the Church was caught up to heaven, as some have erroneously insisted, but to behold and to reveal what took place with regard to the sealed book. About the throne of God are determined the destinies of men, and the, "open door" significantly declares that the secrets of heaven are to be revealed.

      It is noteworthy that the two greatest prophets of the Old Testament, those who had the clearest visions of the reign of Christ, were permitted to behold a similar scene as a preparation for their revelations. Ezekiel [43] (Ezek. I.) and Isaiah (Isa. VI.) are each allowed to behold the glory of God. As the Old Testament prophets, when about to enter upon their work, were inaugurated to the office of making known the future by a vision of the Almighty, so John, the New Testament prophet, the last prophet of the world, was permitted to have a similar vision. Though the visions differ, the most striking symbols are beheld by all three of the prophets. All see and describe the throne of God, with its sublime surroundings; all speak of the One who sits on the throne, though they make no attempt to describe his person; all record his glory; Ezekiel beholds living creatures around the throne, full of eyes, with four wings and two hands; Isaiah sees the seraphim with six wings who cry, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. In John's vision the four beasts are about the throne, full of eyes, with six wings who cry, Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God Almighty. In the case of all the prophets the vision of God is preparatory and indicates that he is about to impart the secrets of the future, hitherto held in his own bosom, to men.

      While the fourth chapter is the opening of prophetic vision, and is introductory rather than prophetic, it is important that it should be understood before we proceed to the [44] interpretation of the events that follow. As from the throne of God proceeds all the revealed knowledge of the future, so from this chapter begins the, sweep of vision that reaches to the end of time. The throne of God, the four beasts, and the four and twenty elders reappear constantly throughout the book, and the grand panorama that begins in this chapter in heaven closes at the end of Revelation in heaven. John describes what he saw when he looked through the open door as follows:

      Behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat upon the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And around about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, Clothed in white raiment; and they had or their heads crowns of gold. And out of the throne proceeded lightnings and thunderings and voices; and there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast was like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within; and they rest not day and night, saying Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

      The object of this description, as well as that of the remainder of the chapter, is to unfold the [45] divine glory. The things that attract our attention are the throne, indicating the sovereign power over the universe of Him who sat upon it, the majesty of Him who sat upon the throne, the sea of glass indicative of the serenity of the divine power, and the four beasts and the four and twenty elders. It will aid us to understand the significance of the two latter symbols to quote all the passages of Revelation in which they appear, and thus to witness in connected view, their words and deeds.

      The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honor and power; for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. 4:10, 11.

      And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof. And I beheld, and lo, in the midst of the throne, and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out of the right hand of him that sat on the throne. And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one (each one, in the Greek) of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us (omit us) to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and bast made us (them) unto our God [46] kings and priests; and we (they) shall reign upon the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voices of many angels round about the throne, and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying in a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I, saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power be unto him that sitteth on the throne and to the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshiped him that liveth for ever and ever. 5:5-14.

      And the angels stood about the throne, and about the elders and four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshiped, saying, Amen; Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, Who are these which are arrayed in white robes? Whence came they? And I said, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came up out of great tribulation, and washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 7:11-14.

      The elders do not appear again until the seventh angel (11:15) sounds his trumpet and the kingdoms of the world are given over to Christ. Then, again, they join in ascriptions of praise to the Almighty. In chapter 14:3 they next appear. Then the redeemed sing a new song "before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders." In chap. 19:4, when Babylon has fallen, "The four and twenty elders and the [47] four beasts fell down and worshiped God that sat on the throne, saying Amen; Alleluia!"

      With this complete view of the four beasts and the four and twenty elders, I will proceed to indicate what the Spirit has signified by these symbols; but first, it will be well to return to the translation of one of the above passages. In chapter 5:8, 9 the elders and four beasts sing a new song, in which the common version represents them as praising the Lamb for their own redemption "out of every kindred, and tongue, and nation, and people," and declaring that God had made them kings and priests unto God, and that they should reign upon the earth. If this fairly represents the new song they sung, they are clearly human beings redeemed by Christ. But since, in every other passage in the book in which they appear, they are surely separated from the redeemed saints, and in a different company, and sing a different song of praise, the want of harmony of this song with the rest of their revealed nature leads us to suspect that there is something wrong in the translation of this passage, or that the Greek text has been corrupted. It is found that the oldest Greek manuscripts give a different sense, and it is the testimony of the great critics and scholars that this passage has been corrupted. Tischendorf, Alford and Lange agree in saying [48] that the correct Greek text is translated as follows:

      Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by thy blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation, and hast made them unto our God kings and priests; and they shall reign on the earth.--Lange on Revelation, page 152{1}

      This gives an entirely different idea. They do not praise the Lamb for their own redemption, but for the redemption of the world. In the other passages they join in doxologies, but never hint that they are among the redeemed. They are each around the throne, are associated with the angels, are not among the martyrs, are always separate from the throngs of those who praise God for their redemption.

      THE FOUR BEASTS.--There are few subjects concerning which there has been a wider range of opinion and wilder speculation than the four beasts. It has been held that they were symbols of the four Gospels; of the four leading churches of the first three centuries; of four ages of the Church; of the four quarters of the earth; of the four elements--fire, air, earth and [49] water; of Asia, Europe, Africa and America! Where there has been such diversity of opinion modesty is becoming, and it is with some hesitation that I suggest the conclusions I have reached after long and patient study.

      I am satisfied that the unfortunate rendering of the Greek zoa in our common version has greatly increased the obscurity. In the Septuagint the same word is used in Ezek. I., where it is rendered living creatures; in Ps. 68:11, where it is rendered congregation; and in 2 Sam. 23:11, 13, where it is rendered a band; a troop of men. Its literal translation is living creatures, and almost all translators have so rendered it in this passage. The Greek word rendered beast in Rev. chap. XIII., is an entirely different term.

      If the reader will turn to Ezek. I. he will find that the exiled prophet of the old dispensation saw by the river Chebar of Babylon, the same beings that John described in this chapter. While there are minor differences, the general features are the same. Each prophet, John and Ezekiel, sees (1) four living creatures; both see (2) four faces, like those of a man, a lion, an ox or calf, and a flying eagle; (3) the living creatures of each prophet are full of eyes; (4) in each case they are winged. There is one minor difference in the wings: John sees six wings, while Ezekiel mentions four wings and [50] a pair of hands under the wings, making the six members. The seraphim of Isaiah had six wings. The similar appearance, and the fact that the same Greek term is used to represent them, proves beyond doubt that the "four beasts" of John are the "four living creatures" of Ezekiel. If we therefore can ascertain the significance of the symbols beheld by the Old Testament prophet, we will be able to ascertain what the same symbols mean in Revelation.

      We are not left in doubt about the identity of the beings described by Ezekiel. In the tenth chapter he describes certain beings that he beheld the second time; and in verse 22 he says: "And the likeness of their faces was the same faces which I saw by the river Chebar, their appearances and themselves." He also says, in verse, 13, that these are the "living creatures I saw by the river Chebar." Again, in verse 20 he affirms the same thing, and says: "I knew they were cherubim."

      Here, then, is solid ground. The four living creatures, or "beasts," of John are not the four elements, four quarters of the earth, four continents, or four evangelists, but are cherubim or seraphim. The forms seen by these prophets are probably symbolical of their nature and work. The information given in the [51] Scriptures is scanty, but they are always represented as being very near the throne of God. When man sinned, it was cherubim who guarded the way to the tree of life. In the tabernacle cherubim hovered over the mercy seat and were figured upon the curtains. The Almighty is addressed elsewhere as the One who dwells between the cherubim. The brightness of the glory of the Lord is represented as attending them in Ezekiel; and in the vision of John they are "in the midst of and around the throne." In the fifth chapter the Lamb stands "in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts." In some way the cherubim are immediately about the throne of God.

      The forms seen by Ezekiel and John have a symbolical significance. These angelic intelligences represent the courage of the lion, the patient strength of the ox, the intellect of the man, and the swiftness of the eagle. They are full of eyes, or see all things; their wings are always in motion, or they are, distinguished by tireless activity, and they continually cry, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty;" or, without ceasing, they minister to the glory of God. Their position about the throne, and the frequent allusion to the Almighty dwelling between the cherubim, indicate that they are of the highest rank of the creatures who do the bidding of [52] God. Thus much can be said concerning the "four beasts," or "living creatures," or "cherubim," without indulging in speculation. Cherubim are present at the fall of man; cherubim also celebrate his redemption and the triumph of the reign of Christ.

      THE FOUR AND TWENTY ELDERS.--What has been said will aid us to determine the meaning of these heavenly elders. It has been usually held that they were men, representative of the redeemed. The number has been troublesome, but they have been supposed to represent the twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs. I think that a careful examination of all the passages in which they occur will show that they are of kindred character to the cherubim (the four beasts) and to the angels. 1. They are about the throne.--(4:4.) 2. When the cherubim give glory to God, they also worship.--(4:10.) 3. Together they sing the new song.--(5:9.) 4. When the angels honor the Lamb, these unite in saying, Amen.--(5:14.) 5. When the innumerable multitude of redeemed, clothed in white robes, praise God for salvation, the angels and elders, and four beasts are not with these redeemed ones, but about the throne, and join together in a separate ascription of praise from that offered by men.--(7:9-12.) 6. One of the elders informs John concerning those arrayed in white robes, [53] and it is evident that he does not belong to their number.--(7:13.) 7. When the final triumph comes, and the seventh trumpet angel proclaims that "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of the Lord and his Christ," the four and twenty elders who were sitting on their seats before the throne fell upon their faces and gave thanks to God.--(11:17.) 8. In chap. XIV., the Lamb has one hundred and forty and four thousand saints about him, who sing a new song "before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders." From all these passages it will be seen that the elders are grouped, not with the martyrs, or redeemed, or the one, hundred and forty and four thousand; not with saved men, but with the angels and the cherubim about the throne of God. This distinction marks their character. They belong to the heavenly intelligences; to the same class as the cherubim and angels. They are princes of heaven. They are twenty-four in number. This number is probably taken from the twenty-four courses of priests engaged in the service of the temple, the institutions of which were "patterns of things in the heavens." They are of the retinue that surround the throne and serve in the presence of God, and they constantly join in the adoration of the angelic hosts. [54]

      Having settled the character of the beings which appear in this heavenly scene, we are prepared to witness the march of events as the seals of the book are opened by the Lamb.

      In chap. IV. John has described his vision of the throne of God as seen through the open door of heaven. The object of that scene was not primarily to reveal the glory of him who sat upon the throne, or to describe the living creatures and four and twenty elders, but to record the vision of the sealed book in the hands of the Almighty, and its delivery to the Lamb, in order that it might be opened and its concealed history of the future revealed to man. Chap. V. opens with these words:

      And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the back side, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with aloud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof? And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the hook, neither to look thereon.

      Let us look with John upon this symbolical picture. The book is in the right hand of God. It is not a printed book, such as we have upon our shelves. There were no printed books then in existence. It is a manuscript, written upon both sides, and rolled together in the form of a scroll, and sealed with seven seals. We learn, from what is recorded in the next chapter, that these seals were so arranged that when they [55] were loosed in succession each one permitted a part of the book to be read. Possibly there were seven leaves to the book, since as each seal was loosed, a leaf of the book was revealed.

      This sealed book is the book of the future, sealed to human vision, unknown even to the angels of heaven. No one (the word man does not occur in the Greek) was found able to open the book, for no one can penetrate the future. It is held in the strong right hand of Him who sits on the throne, the omnipotent disposer of the future, who controls the destiny of churches, men and nations. Let the reader take distinct note of this book. Revelation had not yet pictured forth the future. The sweep of the panorama, that has pictured forth upon its canvas the destiny of the Church and the world, cannot begin until the seals of this book are opened. Had no one been found able to open the seals, the closing book of the Bible would never have been written, or certainly would never have been a book of prophecy. Those who find symbols of the future before a single seal of the book that holds the record of human destiny locked in its folds is opened, have studied the meaning of the symbols in vain.

      "And," continues John, "I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and read the book, neither to look thereon." The [56] exiled apostle is filled with anxiety to penetrate the secrets of futurity, and to know the fortunes of that Church which he loved better than he loved his own life. He was then a prisoner on a rocky isle of the sea. It was a time of persecution. He was separated from the saints who dwelt upon the shores, and among the mountains that he could dimly observe as he gazed to the east; and when he looks upon the sealed book his burdened spirit implores, with flowing tears, that the seals may be broken and that he may behold the results, in the future, of all the struggles, sufferings and blood of a persecuted people.

      And one of the elders said unto me, Weep not; behold the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.

      His anxious heart is cheered by the assurance that the book will be opened and that the Lion of the tribe of Juda, his own dear Saviour, will break the seals and reveal to him the wonderful history. It is an elder who gives him this cheering assurance, and let it be distinctly noted that such a duty as instructing a prophet in heavenly things was never laid upon a human being under either covenant. Such duties mark the elders as belonging to the angelic realm. When John was told that the Lion of the tribe [57] of Juda had prevailed to open the book, he looked--

      And lo, in the midst of the throne, and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood it Lamb, as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent forth into all the earth. And he came and took the book out or the right hand of him that sat upon the throne.

      When John looked to behold the Lion of Juda, the root of David, who should open the book, he behold the only being in the universe who could fake it from the hand of God. There is none other to whom the future is revealed. He only, to whom all power in heaven and earth has been given, can control the events of earth. He only can hold in his hand the book of destiny, open its leaves, and reveal its record to men. John looked to see this mighty one who was deemed worthy to exercise the prerogative of God. When his eyes rested upon him he saw, instead of the majestic symbol of a Lion, a Lamb, a sacrificial Lamb bearing wounds, the marks of having been slain. The Lion had become a Lamb. The Lamb became a Lion, a conqueror, and "prevailed," so as to be able to hold and open the book, or to hold the reins of all power, by submitting unto death. As John beholds the vision he observes seven horns and seven eyes, the symbols of unlimited power and the fullness of the divine spirit. The horn is [58] always an emblem of power, and with the number seven, the number of perfection, indicates power that has no limit.

      THE DOXOLOGIES.--The action of this chapter is wonderfully dramatic. The Being upon the throne with the sealed book in his right hand; the proclamation of the strong angel calling for some one who was worthy to open the book; the declaration that no created being of the universe could open it; the apostle weeping, in his anxiety to know concerning the future, and from disappointment that no one could open the book; the assurance of the elders that the Lion of the tribe of Juda had prevailed to open it; the appearance of the slain Lamb who prevails as the Lion, and his taking the book out of the right hand of God, are all calculated to fix the attention with breathless interest, and to strike the imagination with startling power. And the picture grows still grander as the heavenly tenants sing their doxologies in praise of the victory of the Lamb.

      First, the four living creatures and the elders sing a new song; new, because it celebrates a new triumph of Christ, who has been deemed worthy to hold and open the book, or to control the future. They declare the reason why he had been counted thus worthy. He had [59] secured the heavenly scepter by dying for a lost race.

      Thou art worthy to take the book and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and made them kings and priests unto our God and they shall reign on the earth. (See remarks on this passage on page 49.)

      Then a countless number of angels, about the throne, the living creatures and the elders joined in the chorus, shouting--

      Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory and blessing.

      These praises ring through the heavens, and the reverberations reach from heaven to earth, and every creature "in heaven, and on the earth and under the earth, and such as are in the sea" joined in the ascription of praise to the Lamb.

      Before we behold the seals opened in succession we wish every reader to note that it is the Christ, not as a Lion, but as the slain Lamb, who is able to take and open the book. It is the Lamb in the following chapters who opens the seals. Nor should he fail to observe that the fact that Christ became a slain Lamb, or, in other words, the fact that he died for men, is assigned as the reason of that supreme majesty that enabled him to hold the book with the power of God. The scenery of this vision and [60] the songs sung in heaven make the death of Christ the great central fact of his being. However earthly theologians may reason, these higher intelligences held the doctrine of the atonement. And finally, after beholding a scene of such grandeur, to which such importance is given, it ought to be clear that this sealed book contains the destiny of the world, and that as its seals are opened the future history of the Church and of the nations which affect the Church is unrolled. With the opening of the first seal a hieroglyphic, an emblematic picture, is given of the first historical epoch revealed by the prophet. What it was designed to reveal must be learned from a study of the symbol and by comparing it with history. The opening of the first seal leaves six seals yet upon the book. These conceal six more epochs that cannot be known until they are broken, and which follow in succession. As each seal is opened we will behold a symbol designed to reveal the character of a new epoch. This brings us to Chap. VI., and to the opening of the FIRST SEAL. [61]

      {1} The evidence for the current view rests solely upon the formerly accepted text of the Doxology (song), in which the living beings and the elders are represented as uniting, (Chapter 5:10, 11.) Criticism has shown that, in this instance, the text of the Recepta is corrupt; it has established the fact that heemas (us) and basileusomen (we will rule) are corruptions of autous (them) and basileusousin (they will rule), and has rendered probable (certain, in the opinion of Lange, Alford and Tischendorf,) the further fact that the heemas (us) of verse 9 is an interpolation.--Am. Editor of Lange on Revelation, page 152.

[VOTA 42-61]

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B. W. Johnson
Vision of the Ages (1881)